‘Are you Nana?’ and other tales of older motherhood

A mother who became a parent later in life shares the ups and downs, the fears and the pleasures, of coming to parenthood in your late thirties.

I had my first daughter a couple of months before my thirty-seventh birthday. Until my kids came along, I was pretty ambivalent about pregnancy and motherhood. But at thirty-six, I decided that, uncertain as I was about the whole business, I’d better get cracking, as much to see what would happen as anything else. Having read the same hand-wringing articles as everyone else about the dangers of ‘leaving it too late’ – the creeping, punitive infertility that inevitably afflicts the older would-be mum – I found myself, much to my surprise, knocked up in a matter of months.  ‘Phew,’ I thought. ‘That was easy. Honestly, I don’t know what all the fuss was about.’

I lie. Actually what I mostly thought was:

Why is it called morning sickness, when it should really be known as All The Livelong Day Sickness?

And: Oh God. I’m going to be sick. Again.

We were living in the UK at the time. Twenty weeks into an uneventful  – if vomit-splattered – pregnancy, I presented myself at the local NHS hospital for the second scan. We’d been entranced on the 12-week scan by the sight of our little peanut pinging his/her way around my uterus, and I was looking forward to finding out whether he/she had mastered the barrel roll.

Instead, the scan complete, we were ushered into a dimly-lit side room, and plied with tea and explanatory pamphlets. The scan had detected an anomaly: the umbilical cord, apparently, is supposed to have two arteries and one vein, but it seemed that I’d inadvertently opted for the cut-price version with just the one artery. This was thought, at the time, to be associated with neural tube defects such as spina bifida or anencephaly. To see whether our baby was affected, an amniocentesis was recommended. This would involve inserting a long needle into my belly through to the uterus and drawing out a sample of the amniotic fluid for analysis. It carried a two percent risk of miscarriage.

‘What should I do?’ I asked the midwife tearfully. ‘That’s a decision only you and your husband can make,’ she replied, kindly, but unhelpfully. We walked home in silence. On the way, I stopped at a toyshop and bought a wooden, pull-along snake for my baby. As much as anything, it was a gesture of defiance.

The obstetrician we saw the following week had no reservations about offering his advice. After examining the scan and consulting my notes, he reassured us that the baby looked developmentally normal and that the cord abnormality was probably just an anomaly. In fact, the risk of miscarriage from the amniocentesis was considerably greater than the likelihood of the baby having a neural tube defect. ‘Go home and enjoy your pregnancy,’ he added firmly, showing us to the door. He wore a blue and white spotty bow tie; I felt reassured, and, for the first and only time in my life, grateful to a man for telling me what to do with my body.

I went home and, while I didn’t actually enjoy my pregnancy, didn’t dread its outcome quite as much as I had before the encounter with Dr Bowtie. My daughter was born – well, not so much born as evicted – by caesarean, twelve days overdue and thoroughly healthy.

My parents visited from New Zealand when she was three months old. It was a difficult time: I was trying to conceal the post-natal depression I was convincing myself I didn’t have by keeping an immaculate house, cooking full nutritious meals from scratch, and refusing help of any kind. My parents didn’t know quite how to respond to this, and spent most of the visit sitting bolt upright side by side on the sofa in terrified silence. When the baby cried, my father joked that they had ‘packed the fish slice’ – the utensil used to discipline me and my siblings as children. (Later, in bed, I would rage and weep to my husband about this remark.) On the last day, as they headed out to the taxi to the airport, my mother laid a hand on my arm and looked into my eyes. ‘We’re so glad you didn’t have a handicapped baby,’ she said. ‘Because you’re not exactly a spring chicken, you know.’

In my strung-out state, this observation left me reeling. I was heartbroken, and furious. With myself, as much as with her: it was my fault for caving in and telling her, for not keeping my damnfool mouth shut. I shouldn’t have rung her in tears after the scan (but before the consultation with Dr Bowtie). I had this coming. And if I’d had a ‘handicapped’ baby, it would clearly have been my fault – a punishment for my ambivalence, for telling my mother about the scan, for daring to try to have a baby as an older mother. My beautiful, healthy, vociferous daughter was something I had got away with; something I clearly didn’t deserve. Next time (although at this stage I couldn’t even contemplating a Next Time) I might not be so lucky.

(Months later a compassionate young GP finally got me to admit that I was in fact, desperately depressed. It took him three consultations over two days. In the end, he managed to convince me to start taking Prozac, and after that, I felt much better. Eventually.)

Photo: Getty Images

We moved back to New Zealand to be closer to family, whereupon my husband began the campaign for Baby Number Two. My initial reaction was Are you fucking kidding – I’m not going through all that again, followed by a litany of what ‘all that’ had entailed: month after month of vomiting, a long and difficult induced birth culminating in an emergency caesarean, enlivened by a post-partum haemorrhage and followed by a blood transfusion, my agonising and short-lived attempts to breastfeed, and of course the PND for good measure.

Clearly I was not good at this, I didn’t believe that I was going to improve with practice and what’s more it was downright unreasonable to expect me to try. And then there was the little matter of increased risk factor, for everything: birth defects, miscarriage, stillbirth, maternal death. Even if he managed to defy statistics by knocking me up, I would be pushing forty by the time the baby was born. Shouldn’t we just be grateful to have one healthy baby, and not push our luck?

My mother-in-law offered to pay for a private consultation with an obstetrician to discuss my misgivings, especially in light of the scare we’d had the last time. Naturally, I accepted this kind gesture gratefully and with grace.

I lie. I am a stubborn bastard, and completely incapable of accepting help where it is offered, so I muttered a terse refusal and decided to tough it out on my own. And I went ahead and said yes to my husband, Yes to another baby. Because it was something that was in my power to give him. Because he looked so heartbroken when I said I wasn’t sure whether I could do this again. Because, watching our daughter in the playground, I realised that I didn’t want her to go through life playing by herself.

I weaned myself off the Prozac and we got to work. Once again, my attitude to the whole process could only charitably be described as ambivalent. I even issued a caveat: if my husband didn’t manage to impregnate me by the time I hit forty, we would be stopping at one kid and that was that and he would just have to lump it. But no pressure. Much to my surprise, again, I fell pregnant in a matter of months.

My mother-in-law expressed her joy at my unexpected state by bringing me flowers and for some reason an electric wok. My mother’s reaction when I rang her was ‘Oh you brave girl,’ which I decided to take as an expression of approval rather than a caution. (At least it was better than the spring chicken comment.) Our second daughter was born by caesarean at 39 weeks, just after my fortieth birthday.

Now ten, she is the healthiest child I have ever known, so healthy that recently our family doctors sent us a letter querying whether we still wanted her enrolled at their practice, since they hadn’t seen her for three years and she was about to be de-registered.

I’m the first to admit that I got lucky. Incredibly lucky. But I have no deep or inspiring thoughts to offer on whether motherhood is more fulfilling later in life because you are more mature, more grounded, more sure of who you are, partly because I don’t think any of those things describes me, and partly because I have no experience of young motherhood with which to compare it. In fact, I often wonder whether motherhood is best undertaken when you are young and resilient and energetic, and still think nothing can touch you.

One thing I can tell you that is not fulfilling about older motherhood is being asked ‘Are you Nana?’ (so far, by a relief teacher at my daughter’s school, a checkout operator at Countdown, and at least two of the well-meaning retired ladies who pour the tea at mother and baby groups. Not that I’m keeping count.) I have yet to come up with an appropriately withering response. Then there’s that awkward moment while making small talk about family when you mention your kids’ ages and a fleeting expression of ill-concealed astonishment reveals that the other person had assumed that your children were grown, possibly with children of their own. At playgroups, being visibly twenty years older than some of the other mums can also make you feel a little self-conscious. And going through menopause at the same time your daughter is going through puberty can hardly be described as fulfilling. Although simultaneously navigating a private hormonal blizzard of my own does offer a salutary reminder of what the poor child’s going through.

As to work-life balance, all I can say is the impact of a late career break is much heavier when it takes place before your career has really taken off, all the more so if you decide to have children when the ink’s barely dry on your dissertation. After nearly fourteen years of juggling part time and freelance work around being my children’s primary caregiver, I have now accepted that my career’s well and truly on on the skids. And as I watch women more focused and less diffident than me combine family life with high flying careers, I’m especially consciousness of how far I fall short of the popular image of the older mother as a mature, well-established woman of substance. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to figure out what to do with my life.

All of this comes back, of course, to the fear of being judged. As mothers, we’re often made to feel that however we’re doing it, we’re doing it wrong, especially by choosing to ‘delay’ motherhood. But I didn’t choose older motherhood – it just happened that way. I didn’t meet my husband until I was in my late twenties, when I was just about to embark on a Masters followed by a PhD overseas. I had it all worked out. Only once I’d finished the PhD did I even start to contemplate having a baby. And if the term ‘biological clock’ refers to some overwhelming emotional imperative, I can’t say that I’ve ever heard any ticking. Having a baby just seemed like a good idea at the time.

And in the end, none of this matters. I can truly say that my kids are the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I feel incredibly lucky that they are both smart, funny and kind and, most importantly, healthy and happy. I can’t imagine life without them. They are who they are because of who and where they came from. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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